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Enjoying wine just as dad did

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Michael Austin, the Pour Man, enjoys wine as his dad did — without pretension.


The best wine drinker I ever knew was my dad.

He loved wine, but never once did I hear him describe the taste of wine or comment on its quality other than to say, "Hey, that's good," or kiss his fingertips like the Italians do. If he swirled his glass, it was in the same spirit someone might agitate a soda before taking a swig; it was never to aerate the wine or open up any aromas.

He didn't care what kind of glass you put his wine in, and when it was up to him, he drank from a juice glass. If he could dunk a breadstick in that glass, all the better. His affinity for drinking from petite stemless glasses, kissing his fingertips, eating wine-soaked bread and calling wine "vino" surely came from his numerous business trips to Rome.

He had no special connection to any obscure Italian grape varietals or styles - he drank wicker-wrapped Chianti like everyone else did in the 1970s because it was available - and rarely did he have more than a few bottles of wine around the house. If he did, it was probably late December or early January and he was still working his way through a Christmas bounty of Cabernet Sauvignon - his eventual favorite - some of the bottles still stuck with bows.

My dad drank wine like a kid goes outside to play. He had no agenda, assigned no meaning to the act, invented no analysis and had no goal beyond simple enjoyment. The setting or occasion often meant much more to him than what was in his glass.

I came to know wine much the same way my dad did; waiters set it down in front of me in restaurants and, at a certain point, I began to take notice.

I did not stop there. I enrolled in beginner wine-tasting classes, and then advanced ones. I read about wine. I rifled questions at wine store clerks, waiters, bartenders, sommeliers and other wine drinkers.

I learned a little bit about wine, and then I learned a little more. I started collecting and ageing wines. I flew to wine regions, toured wineries, walked vineyards.

I still do all of those things (except enroll in beginner wine classes) because I cannot get enough of it, and because learning about wine is a lifelong process.

I am prone to swirling my wine, to pursing my lips and slurping it, to mentioning out loud what I smell and taste (other than "grapes"). As my father's son, however, I try to keep that behavior to a minimum except in the company of people who encourage it, or at least tolerate it.

When I drink with friends who are wine novices, I skew more toward questions such as "Who likes this wine- " and then I also might ask why.

In this space, as the weeks roll on, I will encourage you to engage in some of this behavior at least a little bit because I think it serves a purpose. I think it increases any wine drinker's enjoyment. When you know what you are dealing with, you appreciate it more.

Let's not kid ourselves - drinking wine gives you a buzz, no matter how much you know about it. When you feel that warm glow, even in small doses, just about everything tastes better, and the world becomes your sweet and special place. Even a novice can get that.

Let's also not forget that wine is a drink that should taste good and make food taste better. If wine tastes good to you, it's good.

We all have different mouths and noses, and in few endeavors other than wine drinking, perception is reality. When you are clear on that, wine will become your faithful servant, no longer your elusive master.

I will keep technical chatter to a minimum. Do not expect detailed explanations of soil types, vine grafting or root stock. Do not expect pontifications on malolactic fermentation or carbonic maceration.

I am going to tell you about great wines and great places to drink them; about food pairings; about wine regions, and interesting winemakers and grape-growers; about sommeliers and chefs and people who just like to drink wine. You might learn some things by reading this column, and hopefully you will be entertained.

If we ever share a bottle, you probably won't see me kissing my fingertips - that was my dad's move - but I will drink out of a juice glass without complaining if there are no proper wine glasses around, and I will talk as little or as much about wine as you like, always allowing for other topics to emerge in the great philosopher-wine-drinker tradition.

Let the buzz begin.

Michael Austin is a Chicago free-lance writer. E-mail him at thepourman@suntimes.com.

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